Amidst increasing heat waves, air vents have become a lifeline. Because these devices are so important to keeping people warm — and protecting them from extreme heat — the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that they could produce more than 5 billion greenhouse gases. worldwide by 2050. to keep people safe and a major contributor to climate change.
So why not rethink the whole AC?
The basic science of air conditioners hasn’t changed much since they were first invented over a century ago, but these devices have become increasingly popular around the world. Most modern air conditioners consume a lot of energy, strain the electrical grid on hot summer days, and use harmful chemicals, called refrigerants, to trap in the hot air. That’s why, along with many other structural changes the world needs to make to fight climate change, some experts say it’s time to change how we cool our homes.
“We need to design our buildings to use less energy. They should be explained better. We need to explain them better,” said Ankit Kalanki, a director at Third Derivative, a weather technology startup created by the sustainable research organization RMI. “These strategies are important. We can reduce air conditioning demand first, but we can’t eliminate it.
The race to redesign the AC is on. The IEA predicts that within the next three years, two-thirds of the world’s homes could have air conditioning. Almost half of these units are installed in just three countries: India, China and Indonesia. The extent to which these new gases can exacerbate climate change depends on replacing the heating technology we currently use with something more efficient. Currently, ideas range from updating our windows to more far-fetched concepts, such as rooftop panels that reflect sunlight and transmit heat to space. But to be successful, the world must be able to increase the power of the devices we have – at a rapid pace – and invest in new technologies that can avoid some of the primary problems of AC.
AC’s negative impact on the environment stems from its core technology: fogging. There are many components to this technology, but basically it works by changing the coolant stored in the AC from water to air, which can absorb heat, in a room. Steam boilers use a lot of electricity on the hottest days, and there are growing concerns that the technology is outpacing the power supply. And hydrofluorocarbons, the chemical refrigerants that many ACs use to cool down the heat, are greenhouse gases that trap excess heat in our air and dissipate it into the atmosphere. The challenge, for now, is that vapor compression ACs are still an important tool in deadly heat waves, especially for high-risk populations, young children, the elderly, and people with medical conditions.
Technology to create cleaner, better air quality. Two major AC manufacturers, Daikin and Gree Electric Appliances, received the top prize at last year’s Global Cooling Prize, an international competition focused on air-conditioning AC technology design. Both companies produced ACs with higher internal performance while using less natural refrigerants; new components can reduce the impact of the weather by five times. These models are not yet on the market – Gree plans to start selling its model in 2025, and Daikin told Recode that it hopes to use the new technology for its products future – but the IEA says that using more efficient ACs can cut the environmental impact. by half.
Another strategy is to double up on heat pumps, which are air-cooled and work in reverse, using a vaporizer to draw heat into the home instead of letting it out. Heat pumps cost thousands of dollars, even though the Inflation Reduction Act includes a proposal for a high heat pump price, and President Joe Biden has proposed the Defense Investment Act to increase production. Experts argued that installing heat pumps is important to another important climate goal: switching away from electric furnaces, which are a bigger source of emissions than refrigeration. An HVAC compressor is a heat pump that can heat and cool but doesn’t rely on steam.
“Heat pumps are a very important technology to reduce our energy consumption, enhance the reliability of the grid and use renewable power, reduce emissions, reduce our dependence on sources offshore electricity, and lower utility bills for US households and businesses,” Antonio Bouza, a technology director at the Department of Energy, told Recode. The next step, he says, is to further reduce emissions by designing heat pumps that don’t rely on refrigerants, as do current vapor compression systems.
Another challenge is that heat pumps are not an easy device to install, especially for renters who don’t have the money or energy to invest in large HVAC systems. To solve this problem, a company called Gradient has developed a heat pump that slides over the window — which does not block the light — and now uses a refrigerant called R32, called and the potential for global warming is low. Gradient won a contract to install his pieces in public buildings in New York City.
Some new companies want to change the cooling of our homes. One of these startups is Blue Frontier, which is backed by Bill Gates’ investment fund, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, and plans to start selling its futuristic AC units in 2025. The technology uses the company has a special salt solution that can release the water into the air – or pull it out – and the AC can control its temperature. This approach, Blue Frontier says, can save up to 90 percent of the energy used by traditional AC and avoid draining power from the grid during peak hours.
“By eliminating air conditioning as a problem for the grid, the grid can lower the costs of generating electricity. [and] using renewable energy in a more efficient way,” Daniel Betts, the company’s CEO, told Recode. “So not only are we saving energy, but we’re saving energy at critical times.”
Scientists and startups are playing with other concepts. One way, which is being done by the company Transaera, is to develop new materials that can effectively absorb moisture from the air, almost like a sponge, so that the designers can work better. The concept is similar to taking advantage of home technology. This idea uses solid materials to remove heat, and some research is supported by the US Department of Energy. British firm Barocal is developing a type of plastic glass that can do this and also help regulate temperature. One company, Phononic, has developed a smart system that can be integrated into existing HVAC systems. The company says its first commercial installation will be next year.
Although many of these technological advances are promising, the project to transform air conditioning faces some significant challenges. Currently, AC manufacturers focus on meeting minimum performance standards rather than competing for higher standards. Consumers are also more likely to buy air conditioners based on their sticker price, not the effect of AC on their energy bills. And while there are a growing number of AC-focused startups, the industry is still dominated by a handful of large companies, all of which focus on vapor-cooling technology.
“We don’t introduce better technology unless we really need it, from the government or from another organization,” says Eli Goldstein, founder and CEO of SkyCool, a technology startup that can use to release heat. from buildings and ACs to space. “Ultimately, the most important thing is the investment of dollars from private and public institutions to deploy the technology.”
Other changes, such as better insulating our homes and installing batteries across the grid, are still important in the fight against climate change. However, all indications are that people will continue to buy air conditioners, not just to stay comfortable, but to survive the harsh weather caused by climate change. This is especially true as temperatures and incomes rise in some of the world’s largest countries and fastest growing economies. In India alone, the demand for refrigeration technology has already increased between 15 and 20 percent annually, from 2020.
This huge demand creates a promising situation, but it is also very risky. Perhaps the increased demand for heating will spur a race to create the best AC technology and, ideally, the technology that can eliminate fossil-fuel heating. But better yet, more expensive ACs are not coming to market any time soon – especially for the many people in developing countries who will be buying these appliances in the next decade. – it’s even worse when the wind turbines are in place, they will warm the world faster. .
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